The Dobell Prize for Drawing @ AGNSW

The Dobell Prize for Drawing @ AGNSW

william dobell – photo max dupain 1942

Since its inauguration in 1993, the Dobell Prize for Drawing  has always been the subject of discussion and debate about the nature of drawing.

What constitutes a drawing is however deliberately not outlined in the conditions of entry. That has been left for competing artists to define by their practice and for each individual judge, annually appointed by the trustees of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, to determine in the process of looking at all the entries. This flexible, open-minded approach has ensured that the greatest variety of drawings is submitted each year.

William Dobell won the Archibald Prize ( Australia’s premier painting prize) three times and was also the first person to win both the Archibald Prize for portraiture and the Wynne Prize for landscape in the same year. He had an enormous impact on the Australian art scene and also on how the general public perceived art.


“A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing.” – William Dobell.

James Gleeson described Dobell’s style as  —  “One of the astonishing things about Dobell’s portraiture is his ability to adjust his style to the nature of the personality he is portraying … If the character of his sitter is broad and generous, he paints broadly and generously. If the character is contained and inward looking, he uses brushstrokes that convey this fact. In his later portraits one has only to look at a few square inches of a painted sleeve to know what sort of person is wearing it.”

Initiated by the trustees of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, the Dobell Drawing Prize  ( now $25,000) was first awarded in 1993.  This year there were 635 entries and the Gallery Exhibition of the top 45 entries in 2010 is currently on at the AGNSW until 30th Jan, 2011.

Drawing is often considered a private activity, a form of research for painting, sculpture or printmaking, an art hidden from public view. The Dobell Drawing Prize is Australia’s most prestigious drawing prize and has attracted the very best in contemporary drawing. This annual award brings the remarkable drawing talents of Australian artists into the public domain.

2010 Dobell Prize winner – Suzanne Archer

About William Dobell  ( 1899 – 1970 )

Born in New South Wales on September 24, 1899, Dobell grew up in a large family ( 6 children) in a working class suburb of Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney.

His grandfather guided his hand drawing sketches of horses – ‘they came alive on the page” he once said. He claimed not to have been very good at school as he was usually at the back of the classroom drawing and painting the entries for the whole class for the School Children’s Art Competition for the Newcastle Show. As an adolescent he spent much of his time in pursuit of art, rather than young women.

At the age of fourteen, he left Cooks Hill School, where art training was limited, to pursue a freehand drawing course at a local technical college.

In 1916 his father apprenticed him to Wallace Porter to become an architect. He claimed that his lack of ability in maths slowed his progress as an architect. His name can be found on the early NSW Registers of Architects and there are a number of War Memorials and buildings around Newcastle which he designed.

In 1924, when Wallace Porter died, Dobell moved to Sydney, joined Wunderlich Ltd as a draughtsman and started night time art classes at the Julian Ashton School in the old Queen Victoria Markets in George Street. His artistic talents were recognised by the teachers although he really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist.

Dobell the draftsman at the Wunderlich factory Redfern 1924

At the Julian Ashton School he won 2 prizes – 3rd Prize in the State Theatre Art Comp and 1st prize for the Arts Society Travelling Scholarship.

These enabled him to go to London subsequently to travel in England and Europe. He attended the renowned London Slade School of Art. He was an observer of people and most of his London work shows this. He would sit in parks and cafes sketching people. Many of these sketches would later form the basis of his paintings. Unlike many portrait artists, Dobell did not have his subjects sit and pose for him. He would sketch them and then go back to his studio and complete the portrait.

Devon UK 1930

Dobell used London as a base from which he travelled to museums in Holland, Belgium, and Paris.

boy at the basin 1932

Dobell’s painting Boy at the Basin (1932) is indicative of the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch painting on the young artist, especially the tight brushwork and sensitive use of light evinced in Vermeer’s interiors. Many of Dobell’s most important life studies of the male nude, including Study, Boy on Beach (1933), were also produced at this time, and suggest Dobell’s delight in the physicality and sexuality of his male models.

After 10 years in Europe returned to Australia (when his father was extremely ill)  – taking with him a new Expressionist style of painting as opposed to his earlier naturalistic approach.

On returning to Sydney in 1939 the still relatively unknown Dobell taught at East Sydney Technical College.

With the outbreak of war, he took up a position with the Civil Construction Corps, becoming an unofficial war artist.  It was during this time that Dobell produced some of his most famous portraits. – These include The Cypriot (1940), The Strapper (1941), and The Billy Boy (1943), the latter providing one of Dobell’s most iconic references to homosexuality. The painting depicts the weighty torso of laborer Joseph Westcott, his flabby, pink flesh barely covered by a diaphanous, loose, white singlet.

billy boy

In other paintings produced during the war, such as Emergency Loading at Night, Perth (1944), Barrowman, Perth (1944), and Concrete Consolidation Workers, Sydney Graving Dock (1944), Dobell also idealized the masculinity of fellow Construction Corps workers. His paintings glorify the men’s physical prowess, casting them as sexualized, heroic workers.

In 1944, he had his first solo exhibition including public collection loans at the inauguration of the David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney.

Of all of Australia’s arts awards, the most prominent is the Archibald Prize for portraiture, and William Dobell, won it three times. After a modest beginning to his artistic career, Dobell achieved legendary status in Australian art history with his controversial receipt of the 1944 Archibald prize, Australia’s premier award for portraiture.

Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith) 1943

His first win, in 1944 when he was 45, was for his painting of Joshua Smith and gave rise to the prize’s greatest controversy.  He met Joshua Smith and the two became great friends, when they worked with the Civil Construction Corps during World War 2, painting rows of cabbages and cauliflowers on aircraft hangers and storage sheds as camouflage !

Dobell’s receipt of the 1944 Archibald Prize for his Portrait of Joshua Smith made him an Australian household name.

Even mainstream society, ordinarily uninterested in the politics of Australia’s small artistic community, was intrigued by the often viciously personal debate initiated by the awarding of the prize to Dobell. Trouble began when a cabal of conservative artists alleged that Portrait of Joshua Smith was a caricature, and therefore in breach of the stipulations of the Archibald Prize.

Raymond Lindsay, writing for The Daily Telegraph, noted ‘it is daring to the point of caricature, but its intense vitality lifts it from any such moribund definition. It has all the qualities of a good painting.’

1944 viewing of the archibald prize

When the award was announced, two other entrants Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski, took legal action against Dobell and the Trustees on the ground that the painting was not a portrait as defined by the Archibald Bequest.

The case was heard from the 23-26 October in the Supreme Court of NSW before Justice Roper, who dismissed the suit and ordered the claimant to pay costs for Dobell and the Trustees. This was followed by an appeal and an unsuccessful demand to the Equity Court to restrain the Trustees from handing over the money.

But the incident was pivotal in Australian art history, provoking a long overdue debate over questions of aesthetics.

cartoon 1944 – that mr dobell ? are you requiring a model ?

The incident was also noteworthy because beneath a thin veneer of high-minded aesthetic discussion lurked a voyeuristic curiosity about the true nature of the relationship between Dobell and his sitter, Joshua Smith, a friend and fellow artist. While Dobell’s oeuvre is replete with homosexual subtexts, the artist spent his life hiding his sexuality from what was then a very conservative Sydney society, wary of the potential harm to his career that an open display of homosexuality could cause.

Traumatized by the intense public scrutiny of his personal life, in late 1944 Dobell retreated to the relative isolation of Wangi Wangi on the New South Wales central coast. This had been the family home for years, but Dobell had until now spent much of his time at his Kings Cross studio.

When he first came to live at Wangi Wangi, he was ill, nervously exhausted and unable to paint. He also suffered from serious dermatitis. In his own words: “My sister would scoop a coal shovel full of skin from my bed each morning”. He lost part sight in one eye and part use of one leg as a result of stress of the Archibald Prize court case.

He was readily accepted into the community in Wangi Wangi and was neither feted nor revered – a level of acceptance he cherished. He drank at the local pub, RSL and Workers’ Club as just another local, though his home was visited by many important political figures, Governors General, famous writers, artists and actors.

storm approaching wangi

As he recovered, the scenery around him took his interest and he began to do little sketches until he painted The Narrows, The Westerly Breezes and then Storm Approaching Wangi which won him the Wynne Prize for Landscape in 1948.



He again returned to portraiture and won the Archibald Prize again in 1948 for his painting of Margaret Olley. Dobell won it yet again in 1959 for Dr. E.G. MacMahon.

During his lifetime very little was known about William Dobell’s drawings; he considered them to be no one’s concern but his own. They were private aides-memoires to assist with his paintings and it was the paintings that were for public display. Now, his sketchbooks are an important part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, revealing the artistic process of one of Australia’s most renowned painters.

studies of jushua 1942

Perhaps more than most painters, Dobell’s art relied on drawing so these sketchbooks are invaluable to our appreciation of his work. They allow us the privilege of seeing the artist’s private thoughts, as unformed ideas gradually taking shape. We can witness him develop an idea from first fleeting sketch to final painting. Dobell never painted his portraits with the model in his studio. He liked to work alone, from drawings and studies that he made earlier.

An examination of Dobell’s preliminary sketches and his finished paintings—such as The Cypriot, The Cat Lover, the iconic The Billy Boy or his Archibald Prize winning portrait of Margaret Olley—reveal a marked difference between the drawings and the final works, and tells us what Dobell wanted from his paintings. The drawing is particular; the painting is general. Dobell dramatises the image—suppressing details in favour of a theatrical pose and a riveting gaze, adding mannerist exaggerations, or turning a personal portrait into a generic type

Study for Portrait of Margaret Olley 1948

Dobell met Margaret Olley in 1948 and asked if he might paint her portrait. As was his way, he made numerous sketches of her and then came back to Wangi to paint the portrait. When she saw the portrait she was amazed as he had sketched her in street clothing but had painted her as he had met her wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress at a fancy dress ball. This was to be his second Archibald Prize.

Dr McMahon, Dobell’s surgeon following diagnosis of cancer, was his third Archibald Prize.

1959 Dr. E.G. MacMahon

Sir William Dobell with Dr. Edward McMahon and his wife at Dobell’s investiture, Government House, Canberra, 23 September 1966

Recognition of Dobell’s achievements came in 1964 when the Art Gallery of New South Wales presented a retrospective of his work and the first monograph of his work was written by James Gleeson.

Dobell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 and was knighted in 1966.

He died in 1970 in the New South Wales town of Wangi Wangi.

Mary Gilmore ( front ) and as portrayed by Dobell ( behind )

Throughout his life William Dobell quietly supported many charities but his greatest charitable act was his Will. In accordance with the artist’s wishes, much of his estate was used to establish The Sir William Dobell Foundation ( in 1971)  an institution that continues to benefit and promote art in New South Wales.

dobbell in his dressing gown

As a result of the close-knit relationship between William Dobell and the Wangi Wangi community, a group of residents formed the Sir William Dobell Memorial Committee soon after his death in 1970. Money was raised to purchase the house from his estate with the vision to create a museum and gallery to honour his memory as well as providing knowledge about and understanding of his art.

Dobell house 1926

The Committee purchased the building for $14,500 and the furniture and memorabilia for $50. Lady Casey, wife of the then Governor General of Australia and friend of Dobell, sent a cheque for the $50 to purchase the remaining contents. Much of this furniture, including a Brinsmead grand piano, thought to have been given to Dobell by Camille Geysen in return for painting his portrait, and the house, have been restored by Federal, State and Local Government grants and loans. The piano is now the centre-piece of musical entertainment in Dobell House

A bank loan was raised for $10,000. This loan was paid off in just 7 years with donations and door takings, an amazing accomplishment for a small community! Dobell House is heritage listed on the Local Environment Plan of the Lake Macquarie Council and has been on the Register of National Estate since 1999

Dobell house – 47 Dobell Drive, Wangi Wangi 2267

art gallery of nsw

Dobell Prize for Drawing –  Winners

2010 Winner

Suzanne Archer is the winner of the 2010 Dobell Prize for Drawing for her work Derangement.

This year’s judge was Alun Leach-Jones. Alun is a Sydney painter, draughtsman, sculptor and printmaker – Alun Leach-Jones comments: “the work is expressive, darkly poetic and full of drama. There is an ambiguous narrative, alive with vivid and sinister images that are depictive, symbolic and metaphoric. The subject of drawing is drawing itself. Suzanne Archer’s winning work clearly shows her awareness of this profound aspect of the art of drawing – regardless of its apparent subject matter”.

The subject of the winning drawing is a self-portrait of the artist in her studio. At either side of the central form of her face are some of the objects she has gathered there: a desiccated kangaroo and a sculpture of a horse’s head the artist made from wood found in the nearby bush. It is part of a larger body of work that has arisen from drawings Archer made of animals at the Veterinary Science laboratories at Sydney University in 2004, as well as of skulls and bones collected near her bush studio, and from a developing awareness arising out of her relationship with these animal remains, of her own mortality.

suzanne archer in her studio

The artist’s seemingly anguished depiction of herself at the centre of Derangement is not designed to reflect inner pain or struggle. It is more her disdain for the sort of ”rather bland” photograph-like portraits regularly seen in art prizes and her desire to evoke stirring responses.

Suzanne Archer is a senior painter, sculptor, printmaker and teacher who has lived and worked at Wedderburn in the south-west Sydney region since the late 1980s. Born in 1945 in Surrey, England, she studied at Sutton School of Art prior to migrating to Australia in 1965. She has exhibited widely since the mid ’60s, was granted residencies in New York and Paris in 1978-79 and has won numerous awards, including a fellowship from the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1993 and the Wynne Prize in 1994.

She has been a Dobell Prize finalist three times (in 2000, 2002 and 2009).

2010 Runners Up

Previous Winners  1993 – 2009 

2009 – Pam Hallandal – Tsunami

2008 – Virginia Grayson – No Conclusions Drawn

2007 – Ann Pollak – Mullet Creek

2006 – Nick Mourtzakis – nature. insects plants flowers. shell fish corals. the microscopic creatures. dreams

2005 – Kevin Connor – Le Grand Palais, Clémenceau, de Gaulle and me

2004 – Garry Shead – Colloquy with John Keats (diptych)

2003 – Aida Tomescu – “Negru III and Negru IV” (A candle in a dark room)

2002 – Mary Tonkin – Rocky outcrop, Werribee Gorge

2001 – Nicholas Harding – Eddy Avenue (3)

2000 – Nick Mourtzakis – Untitled study

1999 – David Fairbairn – Portrait of Tao Triebels

1998 – Godwin Bradbeer – Man of paper VII

1997 – Peter Bonner – Interior

1996 – Pam Hallandal – Self portrait

1995 – Jan Senbergs – Kitchen at Smacka’s

1994 – Thomas Spence – The roofs of Oxford Street (Taylor Square)

1993 – Kevin Connor – Pyrmont and the city

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